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Saturday, 15 August 2009

A Napster User's First Thoughts on Spotify

A couple of weeks ago I read an article at The Register or somewhere about 'Spotify', and how it was going from strength to strength as a music download service, despite offering its basic service for free. Now I've been paying Napster £15 a month for the last few years to download their music, so this piquéd my interest enough to make me decide to give it a go.

I'm a bit cautious about these sites after my bad experience with iTunes. All I wanted to do was look at their catalogue to see if they were worth signing up to. However, to do that you first had to run their PC client. Only when I'd downloaded it, installed it, and started it up did I get told that iTunes wasn't yet available in the UK! (Yes, this was a while ago.) Like they couldn't have told me that to begin with? Spotify, however, is extremely quick to get going. My only complaint is that they ask for your date of birth. Why? A lot of banks and the like also use that particular piece of information for their security checks, so I don't like giving it out for no good reason.

So on to the Spotify experience. Well, the program is very fast, and downloads start almost instantaneously. Both these are unfamiliar experiences to a Napster user: napster.exe is a horribly slow program, that frequently hogs my CPU even when I'm not listening to anything. In terms of music availabity, Napster seems to have many more tracks that Spotify doesn't than the other way round. Why this is baffles me: you'd think that all the music labels that were prepared to let their music be downloaded would sign deals with the same download services. Anyway, the bottom line is that there are enough albums that I'd lose by moving to Spotify to keep me from leaving Napster. For the moment.

On the other hand, Spotify's basic service is, as I've mentioned, free, so there's nothing to stop me from using it as a supplementary service. I say 'free': there are adverts, which initially were about twice an hour, but seem to be picking up in frequency the more I listen. I guess they're aiming to be unobtrusive to start with while they're getting you hooked, before picking up in intensity in the hope of so annoying you that you sign up for the premium service. Apart from that though, the service is generally pleasant.

There are a few annoyances I've encountered.
  1. Spotify can't spot your existing music libraries. Napster, on the other hand, will quite happily integrate your ripped CDs (not surprising, as it uses Windows Media Player under the cover).

  2. The queueing mechanism in Spotify is highly unintuitive. Gary Fleming has provided a very good summary of its vagaries here, but suffice it to say that, if you queue up three albums in quick order, you'll get to listen to the first track of the first album, followed by all of the third album, followed by the second album, followed by the rest of the first. It gets worse: if you search for all the music of a particular artist and then queue up one of their albums, you effectively queue up all their music below that album in the search results as well.

  3. Spotify won't let me play music on my mobile phone; Napster will.

  4. If I close Spotify by clicking on the top right X icon, Spotify disappears, but the music continues to play.
The last one, of course, is a bug, and will disappear in due course. The first one is such a blatant shortcoming I can't believe they haven't fixed it yet. Number 3 is allegedly on the way. The second one is a pain for someone coming from Napster or Windows Media Player, and takes a little while to get used to. The trick is to put the music you want to listen to into a new playlist, and then queue that. After that you can add more music to the playlist, and it gets queued up in the way you'd expect. (You can also drag playlists out of Spotify and into Explorer or onto the desktop, letting you organise them into folders or mail them to other people.)

In summary, Spotify seems highly promising. It's faster than Napster, and, if you listen to your music on more than one machine, it's more convenient than Napster, which stores music tracks on the hard drive (you can just stream them, but that's much slower than Spotify). Spotify is available on MacOS X too, which Napster isn't. If it can just catch up in size with its catalogue and go mobile, I can see myself spending the £10 a month they ask for the ad-free service and kissing Napster goodbye.